You only have to be in a Bible study group for a short time or read a few books about the Bible before you realize that many passages of scripture have more than one possible interpretation. Perhaps you have had the experience of being in a small group and having someone say “I always thought those verses meant XYZ.” and then you said, “I always thought they were about ABC.” Lets look at Psalm 121 as an example of where that might happen.
A Song of Ascents.
1 I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills- from where will my help come?” What do you think that means? Many people read this as a reference to God. We look up and God will come to our aid. However, in the Ancient Near East the hills were the sites of pagan shrines, the high places. So perhaps the psalmist is asking, “Who will save me from pagan gods?” Or perhaps the psalmist is aware that bandits live in the hills and is wondering who will save me? I suggest that all these are plausible readings.
What about verses 5-6? Asking God to protect us from the sun makes some sense. But what about the moon? We don’t typically consider the moon something we need protection from. We don’t think of the moon as a force which can strike us. In the Ancient Near East, the sun and the moon were considered deities and therefore something followers of the one true God of Israel would need protection from.
I think this psalm was originally about God’s protection from pagan gods. So would someone be wrong to think about this psalm in a less specific way- about God’s protection in general? Of course not. My point is that more than one interpretation is fine. Now that’s not to say that any and all interpretations are fine. If someone thought that Psalm 121 was about protection from aliens, that might not be a legitimate reading. Although if aliens actually do show up someday, we might have to revisit that.
Psalm 121 is a fairly mild example. We could find many other examples, but you get the idea. What the original audience believed a text is about, what we believe, and what future generations believe may not be the same thing. Our question remains, how do we know who’s interpretation is right? The search for the correct interpretation has divided many a group of believers.
But still, who is right?
And why did God write the Bible in such a way that we can have multiple interpretations? Why wasn’t God more clear?
I think we may be asking the wrong questions, focusing on the wrong things. What if its not about being right? Could our being right not be the thing God is most concerned about?
Perhaps the ambiguity in scripture is to help us listen and learn from each other. Perhaps we are supposed to be learning how to live together without agreeing on everything.
I’m not suggesting that interpretively anything goes. But there is middle ground between having one and only one correct answer and saying that every possible answer is permissible. Brothers and sisters in Christ can faithfully arrive at different conclusions about some things.
We are saved by faith in Christ, not by correct answers. Jesus didn’t command us to be right. He commanded us to love each other, to support each other, to listen to each other. Can we give up being “right” about every single thing in order to live together?